The global use of nuclear fission reactors to produce electricity is expanding despite the well-documented risks and costs of nuclear power generation. Scientists first discovered that explosive nuclear reactions could be controlled and harnessed to produce electricity in the late 1940s. In the following two decades, nuclear energy was heralded as the beginning of a new era of clean energy that would eventually replace all polluting coal and oil powered generating stations.
Many countries invested heavily in civilian nuclear power, sinking billions into hundreds of reactors worldwide and jumpstarting the global uranium mining industry. Potentially disastrous safety concerns and the problems of highly radioactive waste disposal were brushed aside, downplayed, or ignored in the giddy excitement of what many experts at the time considered the holy grail of energy production. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 further underscored a need for this new energy source with its minimal fuel requirements. A few tonnes of uranium could power a whole country for years!
But then came a string of incidents that revealed the ultimate volatility of nuclear power stations in well-publicized radiation leaks. There was Jaslovské in Czechoslovakia in 1976, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, and Tsuruga in Japan in 1981, just to name a few instances where malfunction of equipment and/or human error caused a significant amount of harmful radiation to escape.
The real wakeup call for the world, however, was the Chernobyl reactor meltdown in the Soviet Union in 1986. Numerous fatalities, thousands of people exposed to radiation, hundreds of square kilometers of fertile land rendered uninhabitable to this day, and a radiation cloud that swiftly extended over large swaths of Europe combined to make Chernobyl a major turning point in the fortunes of the nuclear industry. The billions spent on cleanup efforts and a $2 billion containment dome to encase the irradiated reactor in a new concrete sarcophagus represent the lasting effects of a disastrous failure to foresee the potential consequences of this dangerous form of energy generation.
Yet despite extremely stringent safety measures and a temporary construction freeze on most new reactors following the meltdown in the USSR, the global nuclear industry gradually recovered from this public relations disaster so that by the 2000s, the world was again ready to embrace nuclear expansion with open arms. Three years ago in March 2011, when the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in Japan was flooded, releasing lethal radiation, the global response was very similar to what it had been in 1986.
By and large, nuclear reactors stayed open with only a temporary increase in safety drills designed to placate public concern. Although many nuclear construction projects were put on hold as countries reconsidered their stance toward the industry and investors in uranium temporarily got nervous, the underlying dangers of the industry were once again swept under the rug. The intense media coverage of the radiation leaks in Japan, the radioactive water seeping into the Pacific and the plight of local inhabitants evacuated from the exclusion zone gradually waned as the world lost interest. Three years later, the situation on the ground in Fukushima is still far from being under control, yet Japan has brought many of its nuclear stations back online following temporary shutdown in 2011.
Today, emerging markets like China, India, and Mexico are betting big on nuclear power to contribute a significant portion of their national energy mix. With GDP growth rates over 5%, these countries want diversified electricity generation that is secure to disruptions in the supply of a particular fuel.
Nuclear power has many attractive qualities that are continually cited by the nuclear industry and governments alike. Once a nuclear generating station is operating, it produces extremely reliable base-load power and disturbs very little land relative to its output. Typically the highest portion of the operating costs incurred by a nuclear power plant are actually capital servicing costs because of the billions needed to construct the technologically complex facilities.
The enriched uranium used for nuclear fuel can be recycled many times and only small amounts are left over to be stored for thousands of years in deep underground waste disposal sites. The nuclear power industry also presents itself as a fighter of climate change by touting the CO2 emissions-free nature of atomic power plants.
One of the biggest obstacles the nuclear industry faces in the future is no longer the fear of meltdowns and concern about waste disposal, but rather simple economics. Recent developments in fracking technology have caused a worldwide glut in natural gas supplies, providing a cheap source of electricity generation that is both cleaner than coal or oil and quicker to build and access than nuclear. Gas-powered plants are cheap to build, but still emit significant amounts of climate-changing CO2.
Many energy analysts also predict that safe renewables like solar and wind generation will soon reach price parity with nuclear, eliminating one of nuclear’s clear advantages. Despite these trends, China and India put together have plans to build close to 100 reactors in the next 50 years, effectively doubling the size of the world’s current nuclear industry. We took a look at five of the most expensive nuclear projects currently under construction around the world:
5 Ostrovets, Belarus
Cost - $10 billion
Original plans to provide the city of Minsk with nuclear power were scuttled following the nearby Chernobyl disaster. Plans were resurrected by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to increase his country’s energy independence. Construction of two 1200 MW reactors began in 2013 and is poised for completion in 2018.
4 Burke County, Georgia, USA
Cost - $14 billion
The first new nuclear reactors in the United States in over three decades, the hotly debated Vogtle power project between the cities of Atlanta and Savannah broke ground in March 2013 despite large protests following the Fukushima disaster. The project will add 2.5 GW of generating capacity to the existing site which has operated since 1987.
3 Rongcheng, Shandong Province, China
Cost - $16 billion
Plans include 6.6 GW of generating capacity to be completed around 2030 using fourth generation gas-cooled reactors. If completed, this will constitute China’s largest single nuclear plant and significantly increase the nuclear industry's share of national energy use.
2 Barakah, United Arab Emirates
Cost - $20 billion
Construction of four 1400 MW reactors started in 2012, with the expected completion date hovering around 2020. This will be the first nuclear reactors for this oil-dependent Middle Eastern nation wishing to diversify their energy portfolios. The project is being constructed by a Korean utilities firm using new third generation pressurized water reactors.
1 Hinkley Point, United Kingdom
Cost - $26 billion
The first new nuclear plant for Great Britain in over a generation, this pricey reactor complex will use state of the art technology and safety features to provide southern England with 3.2 GW of electricity. The heavily disputed project has been criticized for being more expensive than any other form of power generation in the UK and plans for a permanent nuclear waste site are vague at best. With construction costs per MW more than double what they are in China, this is the most expensive single nuclear plant currently under construction.